Amid the global media coverage of the pandemic and Donald Trump’s final days as US president, an unexpected music genre went viral on TikTok: traditional sea shanties, spurring what has become known as the “ShantyTok” phenomenon.
Global interest in ShantyTok began when a postman called Nathan Evans, who lives near Glasgow in Scotland, posted a video on TikTok of him singing “Soon May The Wellerman Come”, a 19th-century shanty sung by sailors crewing ships owned the Weller brothers, founders of a whaling station in New Zealand. These ships brought supplies to the Weller’s whaling station at Otakou (Otago) on New Zealand’s South Island.
Evans, who has become something of a media star on the back of his viral video, has gone some way to explaining this lockdown phenomenon. He told the New York Times: “If it wasn’t for TikTok, I would be so bored and claustrophobic” – a condition which may also have been experienced by the whalers.
These seafaring hunters would go to sea for long stretches while searching for the world’s largest mammal. Evans’ performance has an authentic sense of stoic forbearance about it that certainly seems to have struck a chord with generation COVID, who, like the whalers, are similarly marking time.
TikTok allows users to add their own parts to previously posted material and so several singers, often sporting splendid beards, have layered harmonies, adding depth to Evans’ rousing performance, creating a meme in the process. There is also a folk fiddler who adds a reel-type countermelody, a techno remix, a fake pirate who adds his own commentary, a bodhran accompaniment by a lady in her kitchen with her son dancing a techno-jig behind her, pizza faces singing the various parts, and many more.
Is Wellerman even shanty at all?
The success of Wellerman hasn’t come without its controversies. David Coffin, a folk musician and music educator from Cambridge, Massachusetts, questions whether the song even qualifies as a shanty. “It’s a whaling song with the beat of a shanty,” he informed the New York Times.
Shanties show the clear influence of the African-American tradition of work-songs. Enslaved people working on southern plantations would replicate African traditions of singing songs to accompany their work. This practice was also adopted by merchant sailors when performing specific tasks on sailing vessels, such as pulling ropes and hoisting anchors. These sea shanties have a strong rhythmic flow and a call-and-response structure, with the call being sung by the “shantyman”, a lead sailor who would cue up each task with a specific song.
Whaling songs, on the other hand, seem to have emerged out of the shanty tradition with the addition of a folk-ballad narrative structure. Wellerman shares many characteristics of the shanty: its call-and-response form, strong pulse and a melodic structure that rises and falls, rather like a wave. However, the song also has six verses that tell the tale of a 40-day whaling expedition by a ship named the Billy of Tea and its crew’s struggles to land a particularly fractious whale.
There is an innocence and integrity about Nathan Evans’ performance and most of the responses to it. But there is darkness embedded in the song. The chorus lyric begins: “Soon may the Wellerman come, To bring us sugar and tea and rum.” These were products that were brought back from what was known as “The triangular trade”, with enslaved Africans having been sold to work on plantations in North America and the Caribbean and the commodities being brought back on the return leg.
There has been some debate on social media about the “problematic” nature of these references. But it is apparent from an analysis of the lyrics that the song is neither a post-colonial type of critique nor an embrace of the exploitation of indigenous peoples or the slave trade. It can be seen as a genuine cultural expression by exploited workers for whom “sugar and tea and rum” provided a much-needed respite from the drudgery and toil of their daily lives.
In a world riven by competing ideologies, drowning in fake news and with many people’s lives on hold because of COVID, it isn’t surprising that joining an online community to harmonise a melody and lyric that reaches back to a simpler if more brutal past, has many attractions. Understanding the context behind these songs enables us to move beyond the visceral pleasures of communal performance and towards a more nuanced view of the world, encouraging us to consider what has changed since the days of the Wellerman.